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As a player of RPG video games, how much does a player define their role? We'll discuss the obstacles that define modern role play and propose a few ideas, attempting discover undeveloped terrain in our role-playing landscape.

Seth Gorden, Blogger

June 15, 2011

10 Min Read

D&D Dice

It all goes back to Dungeons & Dragons. Never played? If you’re reading this article, odds are that you have. You may never have rolled dice and filled out a character sheet, but if you’ve ever played a video game RPG, you’ve played some variation that was once inspired by D&D. Everything from Ultima to Mass Effect bears with it an influence of dice-rolling, attack and defense stats, and special enumerated abilities. But I’m not writing to discuss numbers. This post is about role play. At the table, much of the experience and plot progression is shaped by improvisation of its players and group leader. Historically, this has not been a strong point of video games.

By necessity, video role playing is nearly always defined by a class or job. Class determines what actions are available to you, and very often it defines your avatar’s appearance. Dialog, where available, is prescribed by designers and writers who have already played and prepared this game for you. And this brings me to the heart of the matter. As a player of RPG video games, what do I get to create? There are a number of talented developers and studios working on this problem from a variety of angles. Herein, I will discuss the obstacles I see, and propose a few ideas on how to address them. I have no complaints today, but I am attempting to accurately identify constraints that can help us discover undeveloped terrain in our role-playing landscape. Let’s explore!

8bit Role Play

In the 1980s, the console RPG genre charged forward with a couple of Japanese-developed titles you may have heard of, Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. Many nostalgic RPG fans still play these classics, and their owners have no qualms over continuing to port and sell these originals as new platforms become available. Why is their appeal so long-lived? Upon release, they were new experiences for many gamers. Those of us used to the plethora of action and puzzle titles available were blown away by the strategy, story, and sense of grandeur about our activities. For me, these games also provided a means of risk mitigation. Jumping around on platforms was fun, but I was not very accomplished at the task. Even with the ubiquitous platforming of Super Mario Bros, I felt crushed whenever lives ran out and the game reset. The early console RPGs provided a sweet refuge from the punishing post-arcade action games.

The first time I talked to King Lorik in Dragon Quest, I thought “Whoa! He wants to record my deeds on the Imperial Scrolls of HONOR! I am an honorable warrior. The King wants me to continue my quest to save his daughter and rid the Kingdom from the terrors of the Dragonlord.” And so I did.

Scrolls of Honor

The game’s core experience was not about stats or equipment or class, it was about continually growing mastery over the environment. I measured my progress by the amount of terrain I could safely navigate, and the number of yet-difficult monster fights I could survive before returning home to heal and tell my deeds to the King. They were simple games by today’s standard, but their simplicity held with it the value of imagination. Most of the game was made up of goals I set for myself. That  offered me a sense of ownership, and it explains part of the appeal that launched the genre into its golden age in the next decade. It still plays a part in the marketability of these originals today.

Modern Development

For the last decade or so, the over-arching focus I’ve seen is a push for bigger worlds. This in turn drives the player to explore and try new things. To a great extent, these games contain specific experiences that 8bit predecessors could not deliver in such detail. However, detail remains the primary distinction. Role still defines Action. Your class or job determines what you can effectively wear and wield.

American RPGs, such as Oblivion, have addressed the issue by making all items available, and letting the stats and effectiveness fall where they may. Players certainly have a lot more choice in that regard. We get to play dress-up, and people seem to enjoy that. Now that custom faces are a standard part of the creation process… we can be masters of our visual identity.

Mastery of Visual Indentity

This explicit presentation is counter-intuitive to the mind-dwelling, imagination-driven table top adventures that formed the genre. But it is nonetheless the strength of our digital games and, for the most part (at least for big studios), there will be no turning back on this visual fidelity. The imagination is a secondary concern at best.

On the other hand, many games now allow the players to define some interesting bits of their character through play. A common feature is the one-dimensional axis of Good & Evil. It’s a bit shallow, but it’s easy to use and simple to measure. Moreover, it fits nicely into storytelling. Star wars already has Jedi and Sith, and most Hero’s Journey tales involve a Quest for Good and feature oppressive Evil Folks that attempt to impede progress. The infamous Fable series actually alters appearance based on this scale of goodness. But it begs several questions. Does measuring goodness allow for a sense of creation? Cannot evil be beautiful to behold and goodness ugly? Does this measure actually support role play?

A single axis of alignment doesn’t really encompass a character, a whole being, no matter the fidelity and polygon count of our flowing cape, fancy sword, or glowing countenance. We love the stories our designers tell, and most developers aren’t keen to let the players run amok with words and plot. How can we offer a sense of role play without giving up narrative control? I believe it lies in the relationship between Roles and Action. Even open world concepts are a free form evolution of the idea that Role defines Action. What if we reversed it?

New Ideas

Imagine that we start, much like Oblivion, in a world full of tools and attire, full of characters and monsters. But, instead of prescribing classes and jobs, we award them. If a player is always stealing from their neighbors, call them Thief. Why wait for them to enlist in the official guild and be handed the title only for approved quest-driven thieving? We may not be able to give up our whole story, but we can start responding to the player in other meaningful ways. We can acknowledge their action beyond prescribed avenues of progress, and give them a world that cares about their participation.

Let each town or guild form their own opinion about a player based on what they witness the player do. Global reputations make very little sense. A reputation is hardly the same among people in the same place, much less across companies, towns, or countries. A player might decide to be a thief in their hometown, grow tired of a life of crime, and move on to become a farmer elsewhere. Should we have magically-aware guards at every pass that always know of your every deed with god-like omniscience? I think not. There is little value in that response. But without getting to ridiculous levels of memory-precision per NPC, town-wide opinions could be a next step to explore.

While we’re developing our reputation, why not get to know the locals? In a rural, agricultural community, a farmer would be a valued and prosperous person. Perhaps the most respected people in that place would be planting and harvesting grain, or raising livestock for wool, hide, or meat. In a big city, it could be the aristocracy that are most prized for their persuasive skill and diplomacy. Gang of bandits? They respect the killing and looting. Talking to the poor? They might only respect an act of generosity.

Each group may easily have a list of valued activities. Whenever the player engages in these activities (or opposing ones), options can open or close, invitations can be given or withdrawn, and titles can be awarded and lost.

Non-player characters could remember important events. Even in a town that loves you for your general goodness and stores of grain, there could be that one guy whose land you bought out from under him, whose puppy you kicked. He might not like you. Variety helps bring a world to life!

Perhaps if the player performed epic feats of heroism (as with most games), NPCs might respond with something other than firing off cut-scenes, or saying “Thanks for that. Cheers.” Maybe they’d close shops and throw an interactive BBQ whenever you stroll into town. That would be awesome! By acknowledging the player for what they do, we put the player in charge of their destiny.

Shop Closed

We already have loads of content and quests in our games, but framing it as acknowledgement makes it personal. It offers an experience of role play that I believe holds greater immersion than signing up at the nearest quest-giver and asking for a better title and more gold. The game would instead proudly declare “I see what you’re doing there, and I care.”

Discussion Points

Party System: This proposition is given with a single-player experience in mind. Party based games will face additional challenges. For instance, a player in charge of several characters may end up with a team of very same-ish fighters. There may have to be encouragement or constraint to make every character useful and, if possible, unique.

Dynamic Quest Generation: I hear Bethesda is working a flexible quest framework in their upcoming title Skyrim. Sweet. This is a good area of research. Plug-and-play flexible frameworks that reflect the player’s action. That counts in as progress in my book. What else can we provide in framework that would support a dynamic story environment?

Modeling the Hero’s Journey: Many already know about this classic storytelling progression. I posit that if it has a formula, we could write a system to dynamically encourage and recognize the Hero’s Journey plot points. This might turn out to be more simulation than story telling, but there’s potential here that may be worth exploring.


I enjoy exploring the potential for meaningful role play in video games. Exposed number systems with explicit classes have been a great ride from table top, but I do look forward to a cycle in game evolution where they diminish in value in favor of more direct personal experiences.

There is still plenty of territory to explore with the methods in use. A great game can shine for many reasons, and is not contingent upon any sense of ‘true’ role play for my approval. But I do believe that players, particularly those who enjoy RPGs, would love the opportunity to sway the balance or culture of a world, even if the main narrative cannot be directly altered.

Perhaps some day soon, players will be able to provide food for their neighbors, start or end wars, or choose their loyalty based on their own values. We have the content, we have creative force to write and produce these kinds of stories, and I look forward to seeing what comes of the next generation of role play.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you feel inclined to share your thoughts and comments!

Take care and tempt not the fates.

[Original Post: Here]

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